Pressure mounts for Bucks’ Budenholzer

By GERY WOELFEL

There’s an old saying coaches are hired to be fired.

That is especially the case at the professional level, where seldom does a coach stay in one place before wearing out his welcome.

Nobody needs to tell Mike Budenholzer the insecurities of being an NBA head coach. He’s been around the game a long time, starting back in 1994 when he was a video coordinator for the San Antonio Spurs.

Budenholzer spent 17 seasons in the Spurs organization before getting his first head coaching gig in 2013 with the Atlanta Hawks. He remained in that position for five seasons before moving on after an acrimonious departure with management.

Budenholzer then interviewed for several NBA head coaching jobs, including one in Toronto where he was passed over for Nick Nurse. He was eventually hired by Milwaukee in 2018.

In his first season at the helm, Budenholzer guided the Bucks to a regular-season record of 60-22. Last season, the Bucks posted a 56-17 mark.

But Budenholzer’s exceptional regular-season success in his first two seasons in Milwaukee didn’t translate into postseason success. Rather, Budenholzer’s teams fizzled and failed to meet expectations of reaching the NBA Finals.

First, his Bucks squandered a 2-0 lead to Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then, last season, the Bucks couldn’t even get out of the second round of the playoffs, upended by Miami.

This season, the Bucks were not only favorites to win the East, they were overwhelming favorites. But the Bucks are in third place, trailing first-place Brooklyn by 3½ games and second-place Philadelphia by 2 games.

And, unlike Brooklyn and Philadelphia, Milwaukee has been relatively injury free. To wit: Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and James Harden have missed 36 and 27 games, respectively, and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid has missed 19 games.  Jrue Holiday has missed the most games by a Milwaukee starter: 13. Giannis Antetokounmpo has missed 10 games while Khris Middleton has missed just three.

No, this isn’t what Bucks management envisioned after they mortgaged a big chunk of their future – three unprotected first-round picks and a couple of draft swaps — to acquire Holiday from New Orleans last summer.

But even with the pricey addition of Holiday there are more than a few NBA observers who believe the Bucks aren’t as good as the last two seasons. Those observers contend the Bucks bench is now mediocre, at best. And they contend the Bucks’ chemistry, which was so exquisite the last two seasons, is suspect.

Some of those NBA officials are now wondering whether Budenholzer’s time in Milwaukee is about to expire – especially if the Bucks don’t make a deep playoff run.

“Bud knows the situation he’s in,’’ an NBA executive, who knows Budenholzer, said. “There’s a lot of pressure on him, no doubt. He didn’t do so good in the playoffs the last two seasons even with maybe the best player in the league (Giannis).

“Now, that they got Holiday. They gave up a fortune for him. So, he’s feeling the heat. I think they have to get to the Finals for him to keep his job.’’

Another NBA official echoes those comments, saying, “He’s on the hot seat.  He has to win big in the playoffs. This is a tough business; it’s a bottom-line business.’’

A league source also suggested Budenholzer’s future in Milwaukee could hinge on another factor.

“I’ve heard things about his relationship with the Greek Freak,’’ the official said. “I’ve heard it’s not the best. I heard Giannis accepts things from him and respects him because he’s the head coach.

“I’m told they (Budenholzer and Antetokounmpo) have a business relationship. That’s it, that they’re not close at all.’’ 

An NBA executive, who knows Budenholzer fairly well, added, “Bud’s a good coach, and I like him. But those owners can be (expletive deleted).

“If they underachieve in the playoffs again, I don’t see Bud surviving. I could see him taking a year off and then getting back into the league.’’

Budenholzer has company

Budenholzer isn’t the only NBA coach under the gun. According to several NBA officials, there will be somewhere around a half dozen coaches dismissed after the season. That’s a relatively small number compared to most seasons when there are usually around 10 coaches fired.

According to several NBA officials, among the coaches who are on shaky ground are Sacramento’s Luke Walton, Washington’s Scott Brooks, Houston’s Stephen Silas, Orlando’s Steve Clifford and Indiana’s Nate Bjorkgren

Bjorkgren is somewhat surprising as he is in his first season as the Pacers’ head coach, landing the job after Nate McMillan was jettisoned. McMillan is currently the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks and has them surging into the playoffs.

Bjorkgren’s team, on the other hands, has struggled immensely and is battling for a playoff spot. The Pacers are in ninth place in the East with a 29-31 record.

The Pacers tabbed Bjorkgren over Chris Finch, who was then assistant coach for Toronto and is now Minnesota’s head coach, and Darvin Ham, who is the Bucks lead assistant coach.

No joke

The NBA has had only one unanimous MVP – ever.

That was Golden State’s Stephen Curry who, in 2016, garnered all 131 first-place votes.

Nikola Jokic should be the second unanimous selection.

The Denver center, who is averaging 26.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.7 assists, has performed at a consistently high level for the entire season, unlike his chief competitors for the prestigious award.

What’s more, unlike the faux MVP candidates, he hasn’t taken one single game off because of injury or load management.

BetOnline.ag currently has Jokic as the runaway favorite that he should be at 2/7. Embiid is second at 3/1, with Curry being third at 10/1.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has seen his bid to three-peat as MVP fade away. He has the fourth-best odds at 16/1. The last player to be the MVP three straight seasons was Larry Bird, who won the coveted award in 1984, 1985 and 1986.

One other MVP thought: While Jokic is unequivocally my MVP pick, my second and third-place choices would be Phoenix’s Chris Paul and New York’s Julius Randolph.

Raise your hand if you thought Phoenix would have the second-best record in the NBA.

Raise your hand again if you thought the Knicks would have the fourth-best record in the East and be on a nine-game winning streak.

The profound impact Paul and Randle have had on their respective teams this season is nothing short of remarkable.

Lending a helping hand

For those who earn a paycheck in the NBA, Dwayne Wilson doesn’t need an introduction.

After all, Wilson has been a part of the NBA family since 1995 as an equipment manager, first with Dallas and then with Milwaukee and Sacramento.

Unfortunately, the gregarious and well-liked Wilson is on the injured list these days: He is recovering from heart transplant surgery.

As one might surmise, he’s going to incur some hefty costs. If you find it in your heart to help defray the bills, please go to the following GoFundMe link:

www.gofundme.com/f/dwayne-wilson-d-wonder-heart-transplant

Bonus shots

  • Jabari Parker, whose promising career was sabotaged by two ACL surgeries on the same knee while playing for the Bucks, may have landed in the perfect place with the Boston Celtics.

Parker has already turned in some nice games for the Celtics after signing a two-year contract with Boston. He’ll be paid $400,000 for the remainder of this season and $2.2 million next season, which isn’t guaranteed.

  • Parker, by the way, is represented by Dr. Charles Tucker who, as Bucks followers may remember, repped Glenn “Big Dog’’ Robinson. Tucker helped Robinson receive a 10-year, $68 million contract shortly after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 1994 draft. It was easily the richest NBA rookie contract at the time.
  • Since Marc Lasry and Wes Edens bought the Bucks in 2014, the Bucks have never paid the luxury tax. They probably won’t again this season.

By recently trading veterans D.J. Augstin ($6.66M), D.J. Wilson ($4.54M) and Torrey Craig ($1.65M), the Bucks are now $737,000 under the luxury tax line.

  • When Jason Kidd was the Bucks coach, he made it clear to Giannis Antetokounmpo that he should try to refrain from shooting 3-pointers.

Maybe current Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer should offer the same advice.

Antetokounmpo continues to be a horrible long-range shooter, having connected on just 30 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. That is the third-worst 3-point percentage in the league. Only Darius Bazley of Oklahoma City (28.9) and Pascal Siakam of Toronto have worse 3-point percentages than Antetokounmpo.

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